How Do I Deal With My Pandemic Guilt?
People are sick. My graduation got canceled. Am I selfish for caring?
¡Hola Papi! is the preeminent deranged advice column from writer and author John Paul Brammer, now living on Substack! If you’ve ever wanted advice from a Twitter-addled gay Mexican with anxiety, here is your chance. Support this column by sharing it and subscribing below, and send him a letter at email@example.com
Obviously, the world is in shambles. One small side effect is that my university canceled classes for the rest of the semester, and our commencement will be canceled as well. I know I'm lucky that this is the biggest impact COVID-19 is having on my life, and that I'm privileged to have had a solid 3.67 years of college at all. But as a senior with no current plan for postgrad, I can't help but feel like I'm losing something important.
This feeling isn't unique to me: everyone in my year is sad about losing the opportunity to say goodbye to friends, have that last mediocre hookup, etc. But I'm sentimental, and I endow otherwise meaningless symbols with undue meaning (I was a repressed kid, missed out on a lot of ~traditional milestones~, etc.). At risk of sounding dramatic, it feels like an important chapter of my life isn't going to have an ending, that I'll feel stunted as a result, and that the memory of college will wind up tainted.
And, okay, all of that sounds like nonsense even as I write it. Intellectually, I know I need to get to a place of gratitude, and I know that takes time. But how do I move on without feeling like I'm missing experiences that have shaped so many other people? Will it always feel like a loss?
Hey there, VB!
I just want to point out that hardly a sentence went by in this letter where you weren’t hedging or beating yourself up. I mean, you even preemptively dismissed these major life events as “meaningless symbols!” Who is asking you to be so hard on yourself here? It’s not me!
In fact, I’ll go ahead and say what you won’t: this shit sucks. I canceled a trip to see friends that I was very much looking forward to. It’s been beautiful outside (probably in no small part due to climate change, but, you know). I had plans for this period of my life that didn’t involve locking myself in my apartment and eating handfuls of frosted mini-wheats out of a box like a raccoon.
But the thing is, VB, no one is asking that I be happy about it, or that I not be sad or disappointed. What’s being asked of me is that I be considerate of others and that I briefly inconvenience myself for the collective good. That’s called “sacrifice,” and by its very nature it is not fun. If sacrifice is ever fun for you, then congratulations. You probably just found a new kink. Mazel tov.
There’s something to be said, of course, about putting yourself in other’s shoes and gaining perspective. I mean, even when it comes to quarantine, I’m lucky. There are a lot of workers out there who are being told to physically show up or lose their job. Others have lost a huge chunk of income, and I seriously doubt our federal government is going to be looking out for them over, say, a corporation.
And, yes, VB. People are dying. People are getting sick. Even people who survive could very well be put in a perilous economic position thanks to our draconian healthcare system. It’s definitely important to think about those people, and to consider them our teammates, in a way. We should look out for them, even if we’ve never met them.
However, just because there are more important things in the world doesn’t make your concerns and feelings unimportant. Graduation isn’t a frivolous thing! I mean, sure, it was for me. I didn’t go to mine. I didn’t want to sit down and do nothing for that long (and now look at me! BooBoo the Fool!), but it’s a big deal for many. You don’t have to explain that away. I get it. You have every right to be disappointed.
We tend to live our lives with the not unreasonable expectation that the world will keep it together, VB. Sure, ours is a turbulent planet, but on the whole we usually get away with keeping things moving. If we didn’t live that way, we would become apocalypse bunker people, who by the way are thriving at this very moment, but whatever. They deserve the occasional W. The point is: it’s normal to go about your life with some expectations. We need those.
And I think for a lot of people, myself included, we’re dealing with those expectations being very suddenly dropped to the floor. In another timeline, I’d be looking forward to eating tacos in Los Angeles this evening with people I like. In this one, I am looking forward to reheating the quarantine pasta I made last night which I will eat alone at my desk. You can’t guilt me into pretending that’s a good time.
Even if we’re lucky enough not to have any sick family members or not be immunocompromised or vulnerable ourselves, there’s still a lot of grief to go around that comes with the shattering of norms. I’m scared, VB! The routine I cling to has been snatched from me, and I’ve been given a sobering reminder of the precarity of the human condition: my hopes, my goals, my fake little life, all are contingent on so many fragile things not falling apart. It’s a lot to come to terms with. Most of us will need therapy about all this.
But still, in the end, VB, no. I don’t think this will taint your college experience, nor do I think it will always feel like a loss. The sting goes away, and these events tend to fold themselves back into life with time and become mere drinking stories. My advice? Lean into the strangeness of this occasion and do something memorable.
Maybe you and your friends can arrange a graduation party for when this all calms down, and in the meanwhile you can do a ceremony over video conference. Make your own graduation caps out of whatever is in your house or something. Get creative! Make it an even better story down the road.
This isn’t a normal time, VB. You don’t have to act like it is, and you don’t have to feel guilty about being displeased with it. When “coronavirus” stops being the number one headline, there will still be other, no less violent maladies proliferating our world, and those might not even get any attention at all. I hope that this pandemic makes the rest of us more compassionate, caring people who are more willing to invest in each other’s wellbeing. I think that’s possible, and I know it’s possible that you will move on from this.
Meanwhile, stay safe out there! Isolate! Don’t forget to wear nice clothes at home just to flex on yourself! And congratulations on making it through school! I wish I was literate.
Con mucho amor,